Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Song of the Week: "Washing Machine"

As long as we're resurrecting old running features, let's turn back the stone on Song of the Week!  This week's song: 

"Washing Machine," by Amy LaVere

For the uninitiated, Amy LaVere is a singer/songwriter out of Memphis, one part June Carter and one part Johnny Cash, a cute mercenary, a bass-thumping, grin-inducing assassin, lyrically razor-sharp, effortlessly charming, and--this is the key--silently dangerous.  Her voice glides from a come-closer-croon to anarchic caterwaul--and back--as easily as her songs juggle virtue and vice, vulnerability and strength, offense and self-defense.  

No less than three--three--songs from 2007's critically heralded Anchors and Anvils reference a woman killing her lover, including the record's brilliant single, "Killing Him," in which "killing him didn't make the love go away."  And while that hook alone deserves a trip to Jools Holland (opening for Coldplay), and Conan, and a starring role in the upcoming MTV series 5 Dollar Cover, and a rapidly growing fanbase, and all the critical acclaim she's stacked and all of it she hasn't yet, "Washing Machine," the conceptual prequel to "Killing Him," might be the record's best song.

(Quick note: I'll be talking about the song as it appears in the YouTube clip above.  Although the album's version is stellar, it features a different guitar player than her current touring guitarist, Steve Selvidge.  With his accompaniment, the song has transformed into something even more complex, dynamic, and moving.  Simply put, Selvidge's work is as irreplaceable to the story as the lyrics themselves.)  

The song begins inauspiciously: the rhythm section wraps an ominous heartbeat around a sturdy blues riff, following our singer with every step she walks "in the dark."  The story's as stark and intense as its musical setting--we only know she's alone, and moving toward something, but isn't getting far.  By the second verse, she's returned home, but remains alone.  Still, the domestic setting adds anxiety to the narrative.  Now the kitchen has replaced the park, and the washing machine has replaced her heartbeat as her only accompanying sound.  Selvidge plays dual blues licks between lines as her synapses fire in a flash of restrained anxiety.  The washing machine--heavy, immobile, constant--becomes the symbol of her domestic burden, humming incessantly like the plodding blues behind her.  She wants to leave, but is bound to self-imposed obligation: "too many loads to clean."

Suddenly the music--like her thoughtdream--leaves its post, suspended in the air as she thinks about her ticket out, the sound of her savings clanging in a jar, a hollow, metallic ring, like the bell of the ride cymbal.  Just as quickly the band settles back into its prison-cell groove, as the sound of change (literal and figurative) is replaced by the sound of reality: "chains on the front porch swing/creaking like steps in the dark."  Remarkably, the sound of the "change" matches that of the "chains."  It is a moment of startling lyricism, the image of future release confronted--and cowed--by the image of present internment; the key to the cell suddenly snatched back by the guard.  When the band crashes to its baseline, you can hear the dream deflate.  This pattern repeats itself--escape and return--for the climactic refrain: "Someday soon this is all gonna end/someday soon maybe it'll all begin."  

If the band's performance develops the singer's story, then Selvidge's solo reflects her inner monologue.  The slow, deliberate, dueling fills of verse one have now become a never-ending stream of blues consciousness.  Notes melt rapidly into each other, breathless, bent and twisted and disfigured to the brink of chaos but never quite past it.  Selvidge's solo is a cry out, desperate for a voice or articulation, wailing--quite literally--over the violent thud of the rhythm section, the song's tell-tale heartbeat.  

When the antagonist makes his first explicit appearance, he's still seen through her lens: he tells her that she won't do better than him.  The subsequent drum-fill echoes both his "stomping up and down the hall" and the "washing machine" she hears in the distance.  They are the same sound, after all, the rapid-fire reminder of a suffocating reality.   

The song ends the same way it began, acquiescing into its trench and capping itself off with an outtro that dissolves more than it explodes.  At the song's outset, we rooted for an end to this situation, and the beginning of her new life.  Then it sounded like she'd either achieve a new beginning or meet a final end.  By the time the refrain is repeated, however, it's something different: what was once an either/or outcome now seems a dual proposition.  Now we hear the sad truth: the beginning and end are the same thing, two irrevocably linked halves of the same whole.  Our protagonist will find no beginning without meeting an end, happy or otherwise.   Later, "Killing Him" shows us that end, and its equally problematic new beginning.

In the hands of a lesser artist, this song would sound singularly menacing, victimized, or maudlin.  Amy LaVere's success lies in her gift for lyricism, her facile and off-kilter charm, and her masterful songwriting persona.  She is a killer rabbit: superficially vulnerable, meek, adorable, and inviting; secretly measured, volatile, and dangerous.  It takes a good artist to communicate any of those traits, but it takes a great artist to embody all of them, convincingly and memorably.  Hers is a woman worth sleeping beside; just do it with one eye open.  

"Killing Him" may be the sound that follows revenge, but "Washing Machine" is the sound immediately before it, the sound of a breaking point, a quickening pulse, a slow breakdown, a rapid meltdown; it is at once seductive in its power and frightening in its immediacy.  It's the sound that precedes the end.  

But what a way to go.

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